Some Problems with Comparing Factory Farming to the Holocaust
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[Author’s Note: this post based on an old Discord rant]
Sometimes I see vegans or just animal rights/welfare activists in general making comparisons between factory farming and various human atrocities, such as the Holocaust. Everyone else really hates this. On its own this is probably a good reason to avoid these comparisons, but the rationalist side of me, sympathetic to defending reasonable but unpopular viewpoints, isn’t fully satisfied with that reason. It isn’t exactly an original observation of mine, but factory farming is not just very bad for the individuals subjected to it, it is absolutely vast in scale. Exactly how vast depends on what specifically you want to count and in what ways 1, but these questions roughly amount to asking by how many times humans are outnumbered by factory farmed animals. I have seen one rationalist adjacent person put it by saying that denying the comparability of factory farming and the Holocaust requires valuing humans more than 1,000 times more than farm animals.
This point is so inflammatory I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write this piece at all, but the numbers are such that it’s, again, hardly an original point anyway. More to the point though, I am not primarily writing this piece as a defense of the comparison anyway, but I think to make a point that is more original. I too feel a certain repugnance at bluntly comparing factory farming and various atrocities like the Holocaust, and some investigation into relevant differences has given me some better reasons for this repugnance than mere PR, or some undeniable difference in overall badness. There are several things that I think make the backlash more understandable even if they are not often explicitly appealed to in admonitions like this, and I think actually explicitly laying them out is a valuable exercise the detractors don’t seem to offer very often.
Long-time readers will know that aggregation is one of my running interests on this blog. Pure aggregation is not directly implied by any obviously uncontestable principle, it has repulsive implications at certain extremes, and worst of all, there are robust structural reasons why it’s pretty hard not to do anyway. The 1,000x challenge looks pretty impressive if it’s something like the relevant difference in badness, but numbers like this come largely from pure aggregation. That is, it doesn’t come from factory farming being 1,000 times worse of an experience than life in a concentration camp, it comes from the difference in the number of impacted individuals.
I think this problem doesn’t look that obvious to people like me from an intuitive standpoint because, well, we actually do think life on a factory farm is very bad on an individual level, in a morally serious way. But in order to relate to what this number is asking of our detractors as a standard of evidence, we’d need to imagine how we would feel about something we do think is 1/1,000 as bad but impacts 1,000x more individuals. For that matter, try 1,000,000x, or whatever, if the higher number makes the argument more impressive, then let us make the number in the numerator and denominator as big as we want.
Say someone compared the Holocaust to all the itchy foreheads in the history of the world. I might find this offensive. I don’t think it would really address my discomfort if they went on to say that I would have to value itchy scalps a million times less than life in a concentration camp in order to react in this way. Given this, the actual factor of difference in valuing humans versus non-humans doesn’t need to be nearly so high as the aggregates imply for the common reaction to the factory farming comparison to be understandable.
Even if someone did basically accept that factory farming as a whole is as bad as the Holocaust was, it might seem like an unfair comparison that misses what gives the Holocaust its unique significance. Say that I compared the Holocaust to all of the murders in history. I think many people wouldn’t feel too much aggregation-based discomfort in just admitting that literally all the non-Holocaust murders in history put together are worse than the Holocaust was, but you still might think that it’s an unfair comparison. Likewise even if you think that “factory farming” as a whole is worse than the Holocaust was, it’s easy enough for me to turn this around by asking whether the current practices of the Tyson corporation specifically are worse than all of the human-on-human bigoted violence throughout history. Well… no, that isn’t plausible. The question becomes why we are making these different comparisons in the way we are, if we can slice the different sides up in arbitrarily many different ways to push the scales to any side we want.
It seems like just saying a given thing is, taken as a whole, comparably bad to the Holocaust misses the whole point of why the Holocaust is remembered in the way that it is. The Holocaust is something that generations since have had to accept is within range of human nature to carry out – something so hateful, and so concentrated in its evil, but also diffuse in just how many people needed to consent to it in some way for it to reach its scale. We don’t learn any of this from the increasing count of murders as history passes on, we know isolated people are capable of singlehandedly carrying out isolated murders, and as the scope of this phenomenon expands with the march of history, we aren’t dealing with new, worse activities in the process. Just a larger amount of the same. We don’t see a new Hitler every year.
Factory farming certainly isn’t just lots of isolated cases of animal abuse. There are many participants, and large bodies in charge of concentrated amounts of this abuse. But it is still a broad class of activities, much broader than the Holocaust, and you can’t earn all of the cultural significance the Holocaust has just by drawing a circle around a sufficient amount of this broader phenomenon. That misses the point.
I would not sit down for a meal with Hitler to discuss the merits of murderous antisemitism. I think most people would not. If I consider the Holocaust comparable in badness to factory farming, there might be an implicit sense that I think the same way about the defenders of factory farming. That they are promoting something so awful that I would shun them, refuse to be friends with them, refuse to even talk the issue over with them. If this logic holds, then the person making the comparison seems to either be affirming this consequence, that I will shun people who disagree with me on this issue, or that I deny the premise, and that I am implying that I would willingly associate and calmly debate the Holocaust with a Nazi. Either possibility is offensive.
I think this is a good reason to find the comparison in isolation too unnuanced, but I don’t agree with the logic above. There are other things besides expected badness of events that make me more or less willing to associate with people. For one very basic thing, as I’ve argued before, whether you should shun someone for a position depends in part on how common that opinion is. This spans a wide range of plausible reasons from pragmatism to virtue, and it certainly is a big difference in this case. A Nazi is someone who is (in modern times, at least) part of an unpopular minority with little political power, who nevertheless has elected to go against the grain in the direction of Naziism in particular. Defenders of factory farming represent an unavoidable contingent of people who haven’t yet adopted an unpopular position on farming (i.e. opposing factory farms) they were probably not raised to believe.
The other major reason is maybe more robust however. While I think factory farming is extremely bad, this depends on a number of philosophically controversial premises that provide a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how bad, and at least some (not much in my opinion) uncertainty that it is bad at all. The Holocaust is much more straightforward. In order to believe that the Holocaust was fine, you need to believe a host of wildly implausible things about virtually indistinguishable groups of humans, plus the defensibility of mass suffering, death, and violated autonomy as an appropriate way to address this. I have no real uncertainty about how bad the Holocaust was, and will consider anyone who disagrees deeply disturbed in probably multiple ways. Despite the fact that I don’t think the simple comparison implies this judgment for the given reasons, it does iron over this difference in a way that, by default, carries some of this baggage.
Rhetorical Emergency Button:
Somewhat related to the last point, the Holocaust has a special place in our culture as this unique example of great evil. There are many things that have something like this role, like slavery and South African apartheid and various serial killers and dictatorships. A rhetorical strategy that one sometimes sees in debates about controversial issues is one side rushing to find a way to compare their favored issue to one of these things. To press a sort of “rhetorical emergency button”.
This immediately brings the conversation somewhere more charged than any other type of comparison or argument the person might make, and will almost always be received poorly. Because it brings so much cultural baggage to the table alongside the specific argument, it comes off as a desperate strategy, that not only treats the topic at hand in this imprecise and misleading way, but wears down these emergency buttons in the process – treats them less and less like important and unique tragedies our culture must treat with care, and more as rhetorical cartoon characters. The Holocaust just becomes the sort of thing you point to as an obvious win the first chance you can by finding one point of comparison between it and your favored cause.
I think this is a real source of backlash and a reasonable point to be worried about, but I also think it is possible to avoid the emergency buttons too much. If the lesson we are supposed to take away from the Holocaust is “never again”, then you can either stipulate this by pointedly refusing to call anything that happens after it an “again”, or you have to seriously consider arguments about when a new event counts as “again”, even if this means sorting through many candidates that you ultimately reject in the process.
Although I think all of these reasonable worries are in the background of the impulse to condemn anyone who makes this comparison, I don’t want to give the impression that this is always an entirely reasonable reaction. Most obviously, I think that people often don’t invoke these things very well when explaining their reaction, and indeed often they don’t give much explanation at all. Sometimes the explanation will be on the terms of overall badness discussed at the beginning, that the Holocaust as an event was just obviously so much worse than factory farming is that the comparison is ridiculous. At that point a simple response like the scale comparison at the beginning is enough of a counter – this is just a bad point. Even if denying the comparison is a reasonable position, when comparing aggregate badness, it is overdetermined by sheer scale that affirming the comparison is also a defensible position. You need a different argument about what’s different in these cases.
Additionally, I think there are some reasons for this intuitive reaction that are real factors but are just bad. Notably there are people who are part of this conversation who have survived the Holocaust, know someone who survived it, or would have themselves been subjected to it based on their demographics if it happened again today (I fall into this category myself). Factory farmed animals on the other hand are not part of this conversation in any real capacity. There are people who can be offended on a personal level by accidentally downplaying the Holocaust, but there is no one who can be offended on a similarly personal level by accidentally downplaying factory farming. Let me be clear about this – I consider this a terrible basis for moral discourse, one that inherently favors the already empowered, the already-listened-to.
I also think that there are dimensions along which this comparison is useful other than sheer aggregate badness, which we should not miss. One of the major figures known for controversially comparing factory farming to the Holocaust is Alex Hershaft, himself a Holocaust survivor. After getting out, he saw the conditions and tactics used on factory farms – neat piles of body parts, identifying tattoos, large concentrated living facilities, cattle cars – and found them horrifyingly familiar. After some time of isolation and introspection on the matter, he decided to become a dedicated animal rights activist. In one way the comparison is obvious to all sides – and inconclusive in its relevance. It is a well known staple of ethnic hatred that the group subjected to this hatred will often be compared to, and treated in the ways we treat, non-human animals. The defenders of how we treat animals will point to this as evidence that we draw any human to non-human comparisons like this at our peril, while the opponents of our treatment of animals will say that this is proof that we can’t separate humans from non-humans so cleanly, and our abuse and dismissal of the feelings of animals will inevitably be a model for how we are willing to treat humans.
I don’t think this is necessarily the only lesson worth drawing from the familiarity Hershaft found however. Antisemitic pogroms and abusive animal agriculture are both extremely old practices. The Holocaust and factory farming are new. In the wake of wonderful advancements that have cut child mortality rates and raised the standard of living to impressive heights, the evils that will come to most dominate our future are likely to be of a very different character to the mass plague and famines of the past. Factory farming, like the Holocaust, represents a peculiarly modern evil, drawing the ignorance and hatred that have always been part of the human condition up to new heights of efficient brutality and scalability. Mass-produced suffering.
When I worry most about the future, I think especially of this post, and the way it illustrates how worried we should be by the example of factory farming, as a manifestation not merely of great evil, but of the sort of great evil characteristic of the future. You don’t need to compare how bad factory farming and the Holocaust are to fear what their similarities have to tell us (indeed despite drawing parallels, Hershaft himself doesn’t consider them comparable), and the way these similarities add a certain specificity and urgency to the future of “never again”.
Lives at a given moment? Lives per given span of time? And which animals deserve to be in the same bucket, based on both complexity and farming methods? ↩︎